By Gehan Gunatilleke –
Imagine a house with five distinct layers. The outer layer is a veranda and is the first thing you witness on arrival. The second is a living room, where guests are hosted and entertained. The bedrooms are located within the third layer and the kitchen located in the fourth. Finally, the sanitary facilities are found within the outer layer, at the rear of the house. This design is common to many traditional homes in Sri Lanka and may strike some of us as vaguely familiar. There is a fascinating phenomenon to detect in the design. With each layer, the relative charm of the house diminishes. The veranda is spotless; and the living room is in mint condition. Yet the rest of the house progressively loses its sheen—all the way to the squalor of the rear.
In Sri Lanka, appearances mean much more than what meets the eye. To a majority of us, our dignity resides in how we are seen by others. This is why the façades of Colombo were decorated splendidly ahead of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), while the suburbs remained less appealing. Even before the summit, public pride in the beauty and cleanliness of the city was palpable. Meanwhile, large screens were constructed alongside our highways to conceal the slums.
The phenomenon is not limited to the tangible. We are world-renowned for our pleasantries and our hospitality. Yet it is unbecoming of a Sri Lankan to openly discuss the things that lurk behind the smiles. This mentality explains a Magistrate’s look of contempt when a woman brings her husband to court on charges of domestic violence. This psyche also explains the public’s hostility towards international criticism. It certainly explains the hailing of a new hero—Dr. Chris Nonis, the Sri Lankan High Commissioner to the United Kingdom.
As the social media revelry over Nonis’s slick disposal of a CNN interviewer unfolded, few questioned why so many Sri Lankans felt a sense of national pride. Nonis, a British citizen, with his accent, vocabulary and rhetoric, resembled a skillful artist with a multihued palette. The picture he painted and, importantly, the manner in which he painted it, made Sri Lanka look good—a rare feat on the diplomatic stage. Yet the picture he painted was a simple forgery. And Fred Pleitgen, in for Christiane Amanpour, was woefully underprepared to point this out.
Nonis claimed that the government-appointed Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) was Sri Lanka’s equivalent to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Yet, around the same time as the interview, the Government of Sri Lanka was mulling over fresh proposals for a Sri Lankan TRC. Perhaps it would be unfair to have expected Pleitgen to point out the irony in Nonis’s comparison.
Nonis also claimed that a domestic process was in place to implement the LLRC’s recommendations. Yet Pleitgen failed to ask exactly how many LLRC recommendations had been implemented to date. In Chapter 4 of its report, the LLRC cited incidents such as the alleged navy attack on civilians in Chundikulam on 10 May 2009 and the army shelling of civilians in Pokkanai, and called for their investigation. In Annex 5.1, the LLRC’s report listed 3,596 complaints of disappearances, 1,018 of which were allegedly after the security forces or police arrested the persons concerned. Unknown to Pleitgen, a military Court of Inquiry and a Board of Inquiry has already exonerated the armed forces from these allegations.
Nonis also declared that in Sri Lanka, the right to protest is respected, which is why ‘protests’ against foreign journalists had to be tolerated. Once again, Pleitgen failed to point out the glaring contradictions in Nonis’s observations. Even as the High Commissioner spoke, protests in Colombo during CHOGM had been banned by a court order to prevent any embarrassment to the government.
We may forgive a foreign journalist, tasked with eliciting a sound bite, for failing to do his homework. Yet the Sri Lankan public knows very well the inaccuracies in Nonis’s statements. Notwithstanding, the reaction has been distinctly triumphalist—from the viral dissemination of his interview across Facebook to the numerous fan pages bestowing him with demigod status.
Make no mistake; the hysteria does not come from the so-called ignorant masses. It comes from the upper echelons of the educated classes. On this island, the value placed on prestige far outweighs the value of a clean conscience. It hardly matters if the prestige is superficial. It hardly matters that Nonis, the latest guardian of the realm, merely emulated our former colonial masters. It matters even less that he has already sworn his allegiance to another monarch.
This paradox is also evident in the Sri Lankan public’s attitude towards CHOGM. On the one hand, the majority of the Sri Lankan public derives great pride from their country sitting at the helm of the Commonwealth for the next two years. On the other, the public endorsed and openly partook in the anti-British diatribe, which emerged in response to the criticism of Sri Lanka’s human rights record throughout the summit. A majority of Sri Lankans felt that British Prime Minister David Cameron, who called for an independent inquiry into alleged war crimes, had no moral right to point fingers at Sri Lanka, given the UK’s own human rights record. Hardly anyone wanted to confront the substance of these allegations.
We Sri Lankans live in a house with a charming façade but a decrepit inner sanctum. A majority of us derive prestige and self worth from verandas and living rooms and care little for the places that visitors are not meant to see. Nonis is celebrated only because he helps keep the verandas and living rooms clean, and it matters little that the broom is an imported one. Those who pursue accountability in Sri Lanka must then realise that they are not merely contending with the Sri Lankan state. They are contending with the Sri Lankan state of mind. The majority of Sri Lankans staunchly resist an international accountability process because they view it as an intrusion into the inner layers of their house. Change may come only through a radical transformation; a transformation through which the occupants of the house redefine their sense of self worth; a transformation of the mind, where loyalty is defined by fidelity to the truth and pride is taken in pursuing it.
*Gehan Gunatilleke is an attorney-at-law and researcher living in Colombo, Sri Lanka